Stone Dressing and Relief Carving in Ancient Egypt

Mr. Grant Schar, holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He was formerly the director of the Egyptian Museum in San Jose and has been a lifelong student of the art of the ancient world. Mr. Schar is the author of
Art of the Relief in Ancient Egypt, and The Hieroglyph Coloring Book. He has created more than 100 sculptures, both in the round and in relief, for museums and private collectors.

Stone cutting spans nearly 5,000 years in Egypt, dating back to the predynastic era. The Egyptian Museum in San Jose, CA, has a fine collection of flint tools which Mr. Schar feels certain were used for working stone. 

Egyptian limestone differs greatly in mineral content, depending on where in Egypt it is quarried. The mineral inclusions determine the hardness of the stone. When limestone has a reddish tint, it is high in iron, and contains lots of silica, which makes it difficult to cut. Limestone with numerous nodules and mineral inclusions is also very difficult to cut, and results in a rough surface. Only the very purest and fine-grained limestone from Tura or Minya produces the fine, smooth surfaces we see in such pieces as the Stela of Wep-em-nofret, at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. The quarry at Minya was depleted in ancient times but the Tura quarry is still in use today.

Old Kingdom sculptors and relief carver's only had metal tools of copper, which made it very difficult to cut hard stone. Copper is very soft and does not hold an edge when used for working hard stone. Thus, Grant Schar believes that sculptors relied heavily on flint and jasper tools, which, though they wore out quickly, could be renewed easily by flaking off a new, sharp edge. In Dennis Stock's book
Tools of Ancient Craftsmen, he confirms that a tool that resembles a metal chisel, but made of flint or jasper, was particularly effective as it was possible to recreate the cutting edge as it dulled by new flaking. Sandstone can also be used to work limestone, and often functioned as the "sandpaper" used to smooth the surfaces. Much sandstone was quarried at Gebel el-Silsila, where many unfinished blocks can still be seen.

Methods employed by the ancients - and in many cases still in use today - to true limestone blocks were:
Tracking and planing: A method in which a tool is used to cut grooves in the stone leaving narrow, parallel ridges between the grooves, then a chisel is used to remove the ridges. It is possible to see evidence of this technique in use at Gebel el-Silsila.
Boning: One of several techniques used to find high spots on a stone's surface, 
which can then be leveled. Boning employs two rods, with a cord stretched between them, and held taught from each side of the stone. A third rod is attached to the cord at a specified level and is passed along the surface. As it detects a high stop that spot is leveled with a chisel.

        Boarding: A technique in which a flat board is coated with red paint, which while still wet is laid on the surface of a stone block. Everywhere the paint comes off on the stone indicates a high spot, which is then leveled.
Smoothing: Sandstone rubbers were used to grind away surfaces, and particularly backgrounds.

It takes a long time to cut hard limestone. In order to get a feel for the rate at which an Egyptian stone carver could work, Mr. Schar created his own Egyptian style bronze tools. He had the tools cast of bronze made with 15% tin and 85% copper - any more tin made the bronze too brittle. He found that he could work 20 to 30 square centimeters of limestone per hour using them. Interestingly, this is the same rate of progress that can be realized with modern, high carbon steel chisels. He also found that the copper and bronze tool heads could be used for longer without loosing their edge so quickly, if they were not used with a mallet.

Tools used in cutting limestone include several types of mallets and various types and sizes of chisels, adzes and drills:
        Bell shaped mallets were made of hard wood, particularly the heartwood of the 
acacia, which is very gnarled, so does not split easily. Bell shaped mallets were used for rough working of stone. This shape is much easier to work with as it is not necessary to strike with just one surface of the mallet. A handle at the top of the bell makes it easy to grip.
        For finer detail, a smaller, club-shaped mallet was used.
        Metal tools include:
                Wedge shaped chisels used for rough work,
                Round bar chisels for finer work
                Mortise chisels used for cutting mortises and sharp angles. Grant used 
                        this type of chisel are used to cut delicate hieroglyphs.
                Adzes, made of copper, were sometimes used for rough cutting, however 

                        flint worked better. Copper is too soft to be useful for long.
                A boring tool sometimes used in cutting soft stone was made by attaching

                        two flint blades, opposing each other, at the bottom of a wooden rod

                        - which also served as a handle. A twisting motion with the handle

                        resulted in creating a round, bowl shaped depression in the stone. 

        Finally, a bow drill, also used for boring, was made with a copper tube attached to the end of a wooden dowel, and with a handle on the top to steady the dowel/tube mechanism. A groove was cut in the dowel to facilitate the bow whose strings used the groove as a guide. The bow was pulled back and forth causing the cutting tube to turn, and in turn bite into the stone. A wooden "starter platform" was necessary when using a bow drill with very hard stone in order to begin the cutting. Once the stone had begun to cut away, the platform could be removed. A grinding agent, such as powdered garnet, and water facilitated the grinding process. Powdered garnet is a very fine abrasive and was readily available in Egypt. Garnets shatter to a sand-like grit with a direct blow, and are very hard. The small round circles on the kepresh or war crown worn by Egyptian kings in some statuary, were cut with a bow drill. 
Grant, found that he was able to cut 1 millimeter per hour, using a bow drill with garnet abrasive and water lubricant. He noted that because of the sideways wobble caused by the back and forth motion of the tube driven by the bow, the channel cut is some-what wider than the tube.

Copper and copper/arsenate tools were in use throughout Egyptian history. Though harder metals - bronze and iron, specifically - came into existence, Egypt was slow to embrace them. Mineral flint and chert/jasper were also used throughout Egyptian history. Flint and jasper tools could be made in various shapes. Using a stone burin, and inserting a chip of flint or jasper in the burin, the flint/jasper blade could be used for very fine line cutting and delicate carving.

The earliest known examples of relief carving predate the Narmer pallet. These carvings are cut in schist, which is very hard stone. The only tool available during the period, which could cut schist, is flint or jasper. Mr. Schar has, himself, tried cutting hard stone - using a stone called gabbro which is a member of the basalt family, which is very hard and black in color. He tried cutting it with a chert burin using water as a lubricant, and was able to reduce the background by 1/16 of an inch with the flint/chert tool.

Reliefs were created through a series of steps. Once the surface of the stone had been prepared, a "cartoon" was drawn on the surface in red by an artisan and corrected in black by a master draftsman. The background was removed first, which is at least 70% of the work involved in carving a relief. The most difficult part of the cutting is maintaining an even, flat surface throughout. Care is taken to cut the background well short of the cartoon lines, as the stone cannot be put back if it is once cut away!

In large sculptures, being cut in hard stone, one sometimes sees a surface that looks almost "sugary". This is particularly apparent in unfinished pieces, such as an unfinished Horus statue in the Cairo Museum. The surface is covered with little "dimples" which have been made with a diorite tool, and reflect a process caused "bruising" of the stone; a mechanism for removing a layer of stone.

Commissioned by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum, Grant Schar has reproduced just slightly less than half of the Wep-em-nofret stela - approximately 12" by 12" square. It took over 100 hours to carve the reproduction. Particularly time consuming were some of the hieroglyphs, specifically the owls, quail chicks and frogs. After carving this reproduction, he is convinced that Egyptian relief sculptors used flint tools to cut such stela. Grant noted that the fine granite coffin cover in the Hearst collection would have taken 3 to 4 years to carve. He, himself, found that cutting granite with bronze tools is very hard work, requiring him to rest 10 minutes out of each hour he worked.

Polishing hard stone is done in several ways. It can be effectively accomplished using sand. A sharply pointed piece of wood with a sand abrasive is particularly effective in polishing. Only a small area at a time can be worked, however.

By the 26th Dynasty, iron tools had come into use. One of the most important innovations of these tools was the toothed chisel. The chisel was used to accomplish what tracking and planing had been used for, but its ability to cut parallel grooves in a cross hatch, which took away the "islands" as well, made background cutting much faster and easier. Its invention supplanted the need for the time consuming process or tracking and planing.

Several times during his lecture, Grant Schar referred to Dieter Arnold's book on stone working in Ancient Egypt -
Building in Egypt; Pharaonic Stone Masonry, from Oxford University Press, 1991.

Nancy Corbin

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